Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shawn Wilson is running to left of most governors for the last 30 years on the issue of abortion. (Photo by Henrietta Wildsmith)
In 2015, Gov. John Bel Edwards proudly ran for governor as an anti-abortion Democrat.
He and First Lady Donna Edwards put out a heartfelt television ad recounting their personal history with abortion. In the commercial, Donna said a doctor had encouraged her to terminate the pregnancy that led to their first child, Samantha, after she received a diagnosis of spina bifida in the womb.
“I was devastated. But John Bel never flinched,” Donna said in the ad. “He just said ‘No, we’re going to love this baby no matter what.’”
The couple, obviously, did not end the pregnancy and their daughter Samantha held her wedding reception at the governor’s mansion a few months after the commercial was filmed.
“She’s living proof that John Bel Edwards lives his values every day,” Donna said at the close of the ad.
Edwards’ anti-abortion stance was considered a central plank of his 2015 campaign – one that helped him as a little-known Democrat from a rural area ultimately win the governor’s race. Those “pro-life” views made him more palpable to Republican crossover voters, who he relied upon to take the election.
But 2023 is not 2015, and Louisiana’s current Democratic candidate for governor, Shawn Wilson, is not running on an anti-abortion platform. If he did so, Wilson might risk alienating Democratic voters who he needs to turn out in large numbers.
The political landscape has shifted in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned and Louisiana enacting a strict abortion ban last summer.
“Obviously, we are the pro-choice party and that’s more important now than ever,” said Katie Bernhardt, chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party. “People were compromising on the issue before, but now aren’t willing to do so anymore – and shouldn’t have to.”
Even before Roe v. Wade was thrown out, Louisiana was moving to a more moderate stance on abortion, according to an annual statewide poll conducted by LSU.
In 2016, 55% of Louisiana residents polled said they thought abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Only 49% of residents shared that view during the university’s 2022 poll, which was taken a few months before Roe v. Wade was overturned.
The 2023 survey – the first one since the state’s abortion restrictions went into place – hasn’t been released yet.
‘Decisions that are private’
In an interview last week, Wilson didn’t describe himself as being “pro-choice” like abortion rights supporters typically do.
The Democrat said he personally opposes abortion except in cases where a pregnant person was a victim of rape or incest – or their health is at risk. But he also believes his personal beliefs shouldn’t be imposed on others, and that individuals need more flexibility to make their own decisions about ending a pregnancy.
When asked about abortion, Wilson said he is “not interested in preventing folks from making decisions that are private,” and “I dare not question their doctor’s expertise.”
His response may not be the full-throated support of abortion rights that some Democrats are seeking, but Wilson’s stance is to the left of Louisiana’s two most recent Democratic governors, Edwards and former Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
In fact, Louisiana hasn’t had a governor who was a supporter of abortion rights in nearly three decades, since Gov. Edwin Edwards left office in 1996.
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John Bel Edwards – who is not related to Edwin Edwards – has never vetoed an anti-abortion bill and signed Louisiana’s current abortion ban into place. Blanco enacted a similar abortion ban while in office that was meant to be “triggered” if Roe v. Wade was ever overturned.
Wilson worked for Edwards and Blanco. He recently resigned as secretary for the Department of Transportation and Development to run for governor. For Blanco, he was deputy legislative director.
Abortion rights supporters may be disgruntled with Wilson’s soft stance on the issue, but they are unlikely to find more appealing options in this year’s governor’s race. The six other major candidates running are all in favor of stricter abortion limitations than Wilson, though to varying degrees.
Rape and incest exceptions
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Wilson and at least one other gubernatorial candidate, state Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, support adding rape and incest exceptions to the state’s current abortion ban. This would allow victims of rape and incest to terminate a pregnancy that was a result of one of those crimes in spite of the state’s abortion restrictions.
Nelson, who generally opposes abortion, was one of four Republicans in the Louisiana House last year to vote with Democrats in favor of such exceptions, though that proposal ultimately failed 62-37.
Republican Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the only woman in the race, declined to say whether she would support rape and incest exceptions. She said she would have to know more about the specific proposal being brought forward before making a decision.
“The responsible answer is for me to say that I’m going to read the legislation and consider it,” said Hewitt, who sponsored an anti-abortion measure last year to make it more difficult to access abortion medication through the mail.
Attorney Hunter Lundy, who is running as a political independent, and former business lobby chief Stephen Waguespack, a Republican, said they would oppose rape and incest exceptions.
“I believe when God creates us, he creates us,” said Lundy, a trial attorney and Christian preacher. “We shouldn’t be aborting children.”
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“I do not believe that innocent life should be terminated due to the sins of the father,” said Waguespack, who recently resigned from his job as head of the influential Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. “As governor, I will strengthen the laws and do everything in my power to ensure those that perpetrate such heinous crimes on women are severely punished.”
The two remaining candidates, Republicans Attorney General Jeff Landry and State Treasurer John Schroder, did not answer direct questions about whether they support rape and incest exceptions.
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Landry suggested he would be opposed by saying he has “been consistent in my stance for the pro-life laws currently on the books,” which don’t include those exceptions. Schroder said he has “always been pro-life” but didn’t explain what that means in terms of rape and incest.
Failing pregnancies and miscarriages
The other large question looming over Louisiana’s abortion ban is whether its current exceptions for pregnancies that fail should be adjusted.
Louisiana law is supposed to still allow doctors to perform abortions in cases where a fetus has a condition that is unsurvivable or a pregnant person’s life is in danger. Yet Louisiana women have complained repeatedly that they haven’t been able to access the health care they need when something has gone wrong, including during a “wanted” pregnancy.
Doctors have also complained they feel vulnerable to criminal prosecution under the ban because the law is vague about when they are allowed to end a pregnancy. Landry, as the attorney general, sent a letter to every doctor in the state last year threatening them if they stepped out of line, which also frightened physicians.
If elected governor, Wilson said he would push for more flexibility for the medical community when it comes to pregnancy management. Nelson said he believes the rules around “pregnancy viability” and termination need to be clarified.
In contrast, Hewitt and Lundy said they didn’t feel laws around abortions and failed pregnancies need to be changed, though Hewitt said she could be convinced to change her mind.
“I do feel like the bill that we passed is clear,” she said. “But if someone can make a compelling argument as to why it is not, I would be open to that.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Waguespack said he believes the current abortion ban might be too permissive and allow for too many medical conditions that justify abortion.
“I have concerns that the medical futility portion of the law may be overbroad and potentially threaten viable, disabled life,” Waguespack said. “I will always be open to advice and counsel on this topic to ensure the law always protects unborn life and the life of the mother as strongly as possible without opening a loophole for elective abortion.”
Some anti-abortion advocates are unhappy with the list of pregnancy conditions that provide exceptions to the abortion ban. They believe people should carry pregnancies to term, even when they are likely to end in miscarriage or the life of a resulting baby lasts only a few days.
Landry and Schroder did not provide their views on futile pregnancies and the abortion ban, though Landry’s support of “pro-life laws currently on the books” suggests he would not want to make changes.
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